On Monday, we began our very busy day at a meeting with the Cooperative Orthodics Prosthetics Enterprise, better known as COPE. This is a consortium of NGOs who provide disabled individuals with medical care, prosthetics and rehabilitation. About 50% of the people they assist are victims of UXO accidents. We had an opportunity to tour the facilities and observe the staff working with clients and making artificial limbs. COPE has just opened a visitor center to educate the public on the terrible toll UXO inflicts on the people of Laos. The exhibit includes personal stories, films, photographs, art pieces and other displays that depict the impacts of UXO and the challenges faced by the disabled.
Our second stop was with the Lao People’s Disabled Association, which is an advocacy group with 45,000 members, working for greater rights for the disabled and providing outreach through 11 provincial offices and 150 local secretaries. The organization sponsors a weekly radio show to reach disabled members around the country. They described the tremendous challenges of providing services for the disabled and accessibility to training, jobs and an ability to live independently. There is a level of stigma the disabled face in the Lao culture. For example, they must go to separate schools and training centers.
Late in the afternoon, running a bit late, we sat down with staff at Handicap International to hear about the programs they are implementing in southern Laos near Savannakhet. They are working on an integrated approach at the village level, including bomb clearance, health care training, providing medical care and rehabilitation training for UXO victims, education on accident prevention and economic development. One of the biggest causes of UXO accidents is the collection of scap metal. The building boom in Laos and surrounding countries is driving the demand for scrap metal to be melted down for rebar. We also learned about a hip-hop company of young dancers both with and without disabilities that is creating excitement in Laos. The group is a wonderful example of inclusiveness, demonstrating that disabilities do not have to preclude people from participating fully in life.